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reviewed by Ken Klingenmeier

TOTS opens the 2016-17 season with Terrance McNally’s It’s Only A Play, directed by Darrin Murrell. Mr. McNally is considered one of this country’s most important playwrights and he is a multiple award winner with Tony, Drama Desk Emmy, and Obie Awards for his work in theatre and television.

It’s Only A Play depicts the opening night of playwright Peter Austin’s “The Golden Egg” – detailing the after-party angst of said playwright, his director, the producer, a rebounding actress who stars in the play, the playwright’s best friend, a newly arrived actor wannabe, and a critic who would rather be a playwright. Meant as a satirical examination of the world of theatre and it’s participants, McNally’s play is only partially successful, in my opinion – but more on that later.

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From left: Thomas Cardwell, Kathy Pataluch, Dave Ruark and Afton Shepard in a scene from TOTS’ production of “It’s Only A Play”

Director Murrell has been blessed with a superior cast. Veteran Indianapolis actors Dave Ruark and Adam O. Crowe lead the way as playwright Austin and his best friend, actor James Wicker. Both provide steady and skillful characterizations of men who are thrust into a negative circumstance on this night. Thomas Cardwell plays director Frank Finger with a flair for his eccentricities and his rather extraordinary hope of failure.

Kathy Pataluch is great fun as the drug-ingesting, fit to be avenged, much put upon (she has to wear a probationary ankle bracelet in performance) stage actress, Virginia Noyes. Jeff Maess does a noteworthy job with theatre critic Ira Drew. Drew’s invasion of the backstage arena is played off as his opportunity to push for a colleague’s new play, but winds up with his observation of how his words really can sting – something I have certainly dealt with from time-to-time.

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From left: Adam O. Crowe and Jacob Swain in a scene from TOTS’ production of “It’s Only A Play”

Jacob Swain, whom I also enjoyed seeing in CCP’s The Lion in Winter around one year ago, lends a cheery persona to his vision of the young NYC newcomer Gus P. Head. And Afton Shepard’s air-headed Julia Budder is an over the top delight. Her energetic approach to the play’s producer is filled with high ranged excitement interchanged with a sort of goofy pathos. Both are very funny.

Much of the enactment Murrell herded his charges into is purposely over the top, but this adds texture and a bit of fun to the scenario.

Okay – so I really did love the acting. The connections between players were strongly evident. The energy filled performances carried the day. And other audience members seemed to be appreciative, as well. But in all honesty, in my opinion, the script these characters lived in was lacking.

McNally tried multiple times to put a worthwhile finish on this endeavor. Starting with a “failed in tryouts” version called “Broadway, Broadway” in 1978, a revised version saw life as an off-off-Broadway production in 1982. Following that it reappeared as an off-Broadway rendition for about one month in early 1986. A further revised version came to Los Angeles in 1992. Then, a once-more rewritten form opened on Broadway in October 2014 and had what was called a “megaseller” run thru June 2015. One might say – McNally wanted very much to have his words heard – and what words they are.

The play opens steadily enough. It is lots of fun to meet all the characters and see their anxieties on this important night. And once most are met and the exposition is laid out, the momentum of the action is fine. But when the playwright finally arrives, having contemplatively wandered the streets around the Broadway district, he delivers the first of three momentum stopping monologues. The first two are divided by an apology for being up on a “soapbox”, the third is a spur-of-the-moment prayer that endangers any recovery of the play’s propulsion, in spite of the wonderful attempts to do so by the actors.

What we are left with – again, in my opinion – is a series of well-divided laugh lines popping up here and there, in a scenario we have forgotten to care about.

Here, one might say, “but, Ken, this version was a huge hit on Broadway”. Well, I am thinking that one could put Nathan Lane (who played James Wicker, relieved at one point by Martin Short), Matthew Broderick (Peter Austin), F. Murray Abraham (Ira Drew) and Stockard Channing (Virginia Noyes) onstage making toast and wind up with a hit.

Bottom-line: I congratulate this cast and director. The performances were funny, thoughtful and at times, even courageous, but in the end – the play about a bad play was, in a way, prophetic.

It’s Only A Play continues at Theatre on the Square through October 1. Information about tickets and scheduled performances may be found at http://www.tots.org .

  • – Photos by Zach Rosing
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